A Common-Sense Approach Can Address Addiction and Crime

Haste makes waste, an old adage that rings true today. The ability of opioids to take root in our very state, towns, neighborhoods and families took time. Yet the recent Bill H.534 demonstrates how quickly lawmakers jump to increasing multiple retail theft penalties into some serious jail time. Quick to make this choice, versus meaningful rehabilitation time for those repeat shoplifters, likely stealing to support a pernicious opioid addiction.

Ten years ago, I witnessed my first opioid baby birth as an operating room nurse. That weekend there were 2 more. In the passage of those ten years, the opioid pandemic has taken with it our friends, our neighbors and our children. If you were a calculus major, you can relate to the “maximum point” on a graph. That is where we are now. To head down the other side of that curve, we need addiction treatment and family services increased on what would be the “x axis” to bring that curve down closer to the pre-opioid epidemic, or for those math nerds out there, increase treatment on x, to decrease use on y!

Former Governor Shumlin, who dedicated his 2014 State of The Union address to this crisis, and who began the implementation of policy to support treatment, recently said this: “Frankly what we’ve done, in my view, and the tragedy is, we’ve accepted this as sort of part of life, as opposed to attacking it with everything that we have,” Shumlin told Vermont Public. “And I think we’ve got to get back to focusing on this is not acceptable.” Touche!

This brings me to how state lawmakers are “attacking it”, with their hastily proposed “lock em up” legislation being considered this session: Bill H. 534 Sponsored by Representative Martin LaLonde and Representative William Notte. This bill adds on to our existing retail theft law, (13 V.S.A. 2577) which  should be able to stand on it’s own without this knee jerk response from lawmakers. Presently, it reads: A person convicted of the offense of retail theft of merchandise having a retail value not in excess of $900.00 shall be punished by a fine of not more than $500.00 or imprisonment for not more than six months, or both. And: (b) A person convicted of the offense of retail theft of merchandise having a retail value in excess of $900.00 shall be punished by a fine of not more than $1,000.00 or imprisonment for not more than 10 years, or both. There is the law, why not enforce it? Or what about if we changed that law to replace punished with “provided rehabilitation in a drug treatment program for not more than 6 months, or the latter not more than 10 years.” Instead, we are going to widen our net to incarceration by adding the following to Retail Theft Law:

(d) A person who acts in concert with one or more persons to commit the offense of retail theft in violation of subdivision 2575(1) of this title shall be held to the same standard as a person who commits more than one retail theft offense in violation of 19 subdivision 2575(1) of this title in more than one location within a 14-day period shall be punished by a fine of not more than $1,000.00 or imprisonment for not more than three years, or both, if the aggregate retail value of the merchandise taken away exceeds $900.00. The punishments for both if exceed $10,000 dollars can result in 10 years in prison.

Now I am not a lawmaker, or a legislative lawyer who writes the law, but is seems to me there are a few technical problems with this expeditiously scribbled amendment hurried through to appease those in fear of their public safety: specifically retail stores who unfortunately are victims of the opioid epidemic. The hastily written part of this amendment does not include the word “convicted.” It seems, as written, if someone “commits” these offenses, they are subject to the above punishments. And, if a person “commits” these with another, the “other” is also subjected to these fines and imprisonment. Is the failure to include the word “convicted” left out in haste, or are we bypassing the legal system altogether, and it will be pre-ordained that a person or persons suspected in committing retail theft are now going to move to the head of the class and find themselves in prison straight from TJ MAXX?

A conviction means a number of court appearances and pleas and public defenders and state’s attorneys. Oh, and need I mention that we are a bit behind in the court system? As of today (2/3/24) we have 400 detainees waiting for their “speedy trial,” and or at the very least a day in court to move things along. We also lock up 126 people out of state away from their families and home. I am wondering where we are planning to put all of these extra people once they are accused, yet not convicted of committing retail theft. Or, if the penning of this amendment really meant “convicted”? Perhaps the word “committed” was used accidentally, as the proofreading of this new proposed law has not come to anyone’s senses as of yet. Remember, this is done with haste to jam it in this session by, again, lawmakers who have forgotten to do their homework and did not study for the test. You know the part of history about how the Nixon era war on drugs took incarceration from 230,000 to the 2.3 million it is today, or who can forget Nancy Reagan’s famous slogan “just say no”? And how this has only managed to birth our for-profit “incarceration nation”, and allow unfettered opioid disuse to march through the streets of America. This pandemic that is fast like the wind, and crippling like a cancer. You know, the one that’s so good at creating empty places at kitchen tables across our country and in our homes?

Symptoms of opioid addiction include stealing to buy drugs and include taking any and all personal risks to procure what their brain is screaming for them to do: GET OPIOIDS NOW. Hurting close friends, relatives and store owners by stealing and risking overdose every day and with every needle is an unlikable, damaging, and incomprehensible part of the illness.

If this amendment passes, will there be law enforcement teams waiting to swoop in, and cart our opioid addicted community members off to prison, versus an available rehabilitation facility? (Remember dear reader, there are no expeditious laws or otherwise, being proposed to increase on demand drug treatment facilites around our state.)

So, based on what we know, is increasing penalties for retail theft going to cure this activity, as well as the opioid epidemic? Is it going to curb the intense cravings due to imminent withdrawal of a person experiencing this epidemic to say “Oh, I better not steal, the legislature just increased the fine and incarceration.”

As of this moment in time, I don’t hear any legislator introducing a bill to fund statewide inpatient rehabiliation programs. We are going to be spending $13.5 million next year for a new women’s prison to house the 100 women we hold today. Interestingly enough, 50 of those woman are not sentenced, they are detainees, waiting for their “speedy trial” and or day in court. What if we spent a fraction of that on inpatient substance abuse treatment?

I am not a proud Vermonter to point out that as the opioid pandemic rages on, the legislators of this state seek to actually add together multiple misdemeanors for a felony punishment. This is a knee jerk reaction, it is hasty, it is a band-aid and it is done to appease a few retail store owners. In an ideal state we would have in-patient addiction services that would last for months. In an ideal state our retail store owners could place a sign on their door that says “If you are struggling with addiction, call this number and someone will come bring you for help. If you don’t have a phone, or are afraid to make that call, come in, we will help you.”

That is what it is going to take to pull fellow Vermonters out of the grip of this terrible pandemic that took ten years in the making. It is going strong, and has been given ample opportunity to seek out new victims daily. Until we actually create meaningful available on-demand rehabilitative services to help our state in the midst of this crisis, we will continue to have some legislators make hasty “quick fix” laws that only serve to increase the divide between those who can help, but don’t, and those who need help, but can’t get it.

I still mourn for those we have lost, and I fear there are more to come unless we stop accepting the young faces in the obituary column as the new norm. We are Vermont strong, now prove it; fund recovery services, not incarceration. Let us not find out the mistakes and loss of time that will occur with the passing of H.534.

Good things take time. Haste makes waste. I urge lawmakers to ignore recent advice about bringing out more sticks, give the evidence based carrots the time to grow!

— Leslie Thorsen

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